Episode 83: Dr. Emily Balcetis – Tools For Setting & Achieving Goals | Huberman Lab

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Key Takeaways

  • How you visualize a goal or problem in your mind dictates how well you lean into that goal: whether you will be able to meet the goal, how you feel after, and your capacity to tackle larger goals
  • “Proximity to a goal increases the investment and resources that people use to meet that goal.” – Dr. Emily Balcetis
  • Set goals that are challenging but not impossible – and – not so easy that it’s a no-brainer or requires minimal effort
  • Overweight/deconditioned people see the world as more challenging: hills are steeper, finish lines are further – which shifts these people into a state of fatigue and makes it harder to start & overcome
  • Trouble finishing your run? Focus on intermediate targets along the way which makes the goal feel closer and you push harder
  • Visualization/vision boards alone are not enough! To put visualizations into action: (1) set a plan – break it down into practical day-to-day; (2) think about obstacles that stand in the way of success so they don’t surprise you along the way
  • When setting goals you can’t tangibly see, don’t count on your memory – write down progress along the way or use an app to help you more accurately track & reflect on progress


Dr. Emily Balcetis, Ph.D. (@EBalcetis) is a Professor of Psychology at New York University. Her research focuses on how our perception of the world, particularly our visual perceptions, influences our level and persistence of motivation, how we conceptualize goals, actual goal achievement, and our emotional state as we pursue goals.

In this episode of Huberman Lab, Andrew Huberman & Dr. Emily Balcetis explain how to best visualize and overcome challenges in pursuit of larger, complex goals. They also discuss the science of defining goals, setting milestones, overcoming obstacles, and tracking progress.

Host: Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab)

Book: Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See The World by Dr. Emily Balcetis

TED Talk: Why some people find exercise harder than others (TED Talk)

What Makes Visual Field Unique?

  • Vision takes up more real estate & visual processing in the brain as compared to any of the other senses
  • We prioritize what we see because the visual field is trusted and very rarely second-guessed – we believe what we see, as opposed to sometimes mishearing what is said or reading ingredients if we can’t tell what’s in a food, etc.
  • Optical illusions give us an unexpected insight into the world – check out artist Anish Kapoor
  • Narrowing our visual aperture changes the way we perceive time
  • Seeing the world through narrowed focus or spotlight is helpful when we need an extra push to get us to the finish line
  • When we are stressed or aroused in any way, pupils enlarge which equates to a narrowing of the visual aperture
  • People with anxiety or depression have more attention captured by negative things or reinforcing of world view

Relationship Between Visual Field, Exercise, & Goal Setting

  • Goals most people struggle with are usually related to health – exercise, diet, etc.
  • Runners who use a narrowed scope of vision/attention in races have better outcomes (stronger finish, less perceived fatigue) than those who don’t
  • Strategies to focus visual field: look straight ahead at the goal/finish line, set a target at some marker of significance (such as lamppost, mile marker, a runner who’s ahead of you etc.), and move to the next as you hit
  • Brain stem circuitry for alertness is enhanced as the visual field is narrowed
  • Goal-gradient hypothesis: the closer you get to the goal, the harder you work to finish that goal
  • The illusion of proximity has a direct and causal impact on improving exercise performance
  • Tip: induce an illusion of proximity that makes the goal look closer and keeps you pushing harder

Using Visualization To Start

  • “For a lot of people, it’s not about getting from start to finish, it’s about getting to start.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman
  • Creating a visual manifestation (e.g., vision board, lists) of your goal is effective for identifying what you want, but not necessarily effective in actually meeting the goal
  • On its own, thinking about or dreaming about what you want is not enough – people tend to rest on their laurels and feel accomplished in the creation
  • “The process of goal setting shouldn’t stop at articulating what the goal is.” – Dr. Emily Balcetis
  • To put visualization into action: (1) plan – break into down into practical day-to-day; (2) think about obstacles that stand in the way of success so they don’t surprise you along the way
  • Foreshadow failure and plan solutions to set yourself up for success

How Motivated Versus Unmotivated People View The World

  • Visual experiences change in relation to different states of our body – people who experience chronic fatigue, elderly, and overweight perceive distances as farther, hills steeper, etc.
  • Study findings: people when given a sugary energy drink, perceived their space as more constricted and the finish line was closer to them
  • “If you have more energy, the world looks easier; the distance to the finish line doesn’t look as far.” – Dr. Emily Balcetis
  • Overweight/deconditioned people have trouble starting in part because the world literally looks harder to them than it does to someone who is in better physical health – they’re motivationally in a place for a task to feel impossible
  • How to overcome: narrowing the visual field will help allocate resources in the right direction

Approaching Cognitive, Non-Physical Goals

  • Tying vision to the process of learning a language helps enhance outcomes
  • When a goal is not visual (i.e., race finish line), it helps to visualize a target related to your goal – for example, don’t count on your memory alone, write down your progress or record on your phone to accurately track
  • Tools for progress tracking: Reporter app, One Second Everyday app
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